The great Cristiano Ronaldo debate - are Portugal better off without former Man Utd talisman?

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The Euro 2016 champions begin their campaign on Tuesday evening

To some, he is the Greatest Of All Time, to others, a perma-tanned ego in perpetual orbit of a quivering Adam’s apple. Either way, when Cristiano Ronaldo is in the immediate vicinity, he has a knack for commanding discourse - a sort of supermassive black hole feasting on attention and sucking anything and everything into the yawning abyss of his self-chiselled lore.

Euro 2024 is unlikely to be any different. Now 39, but not looking a day over 38, CR7 has been named in Portugal’s squad for an 11th major international tournament, and could win his 208th cap for his nation when they begin their group stage campaign against the Czech Republic on Tuesday evening.

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But, in an alien twist, this summer’s competition in Germany also represents the first time since his emergence as a buck-toothed stepover machine that Ronaldo is not - I repeat, NOT - nailed on for a starting role. Now managed by Bobby Brown Shoes himself, Roberto Martinez, there have been mounting questions as to whether Portugal should do the unthinkable and bench their talismanic one-man soap opera.

The reasons why are fairly straightforward; the most obvious being that Ronaldo, as mentioned above, is pushing 40. And while the five-time Ballon d’Or winner doesn’t exactly need a Stannah stair lift to get on the end of crosses or anything, there is certainly an argument to be made for him being less of an indomitable physical presence than he once was.

Then, of course, there is the wealth of talent that Portugal boasts besides. Even without Ronaldo, Martinez would still have a forward line consisting of Goncalo Ramos, Joao Felix, Rafael Leao, Francisco Conceicao, Diogo Jota, and Pedro Neto with midfield support from the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva, among others.

There are also suspicions that the Portuguese may actually play with a greater attacking fluidity when Ronaldo is not stationed up front as their de facto focal point. During a flawless qualification campaign in which they played 10, won 10, scored 36, and conceded just two, the only match that the former Manchester United attacker did not feature in was the 9-0 drubbing of Luxembourg - a game that has since been heralded by many as the zenith of Martinez’s tenure thus far. Indeed, Portuguese outlet A Bola weighed in on the subject recently, asking: ‘When is the right time for the normality of this team to be the absence of Ronaldo and not his presence?’

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And that is a fair question, but one that is still muddied by the undeniable heft of Ronaldo’s output; last season alone, he registered 44 goals in 45 matches for Saudi Pro League club Al-Nassr. Now, granted, some will argue that the quality of opponent negates the magnificence of the achievement, that guaranteeing him a starting role at Euro 2024 off the back of it is a little like sending a humdrum dad of two to the Paris Olympics after winning the three-legged race at their youngest child’s primary school sports day.

But like it or not, Ronaldo still knows where the back of the net is. Only Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku eclipsed the Portuguese veteran’s tally of 10 goals in qualifying, and even in the buildup to this summer’s tournament, he bagged a customary brace in a friendly against the Republic of Ireland. In his last 11 caps, Ronaldo has score on 11 separate occasions.

This, then, is the dilemma that faces Martinez, and Portugal writ large; flashes of individual brilliance vs. the creeping perception of a greater, progressive good without Ronaldo in the limelight. It is not an easy decision to make, and it is one that looks as if it could linger for some time to come; privately, Cristiano has reportedly told his manager that he wishes to remain with the national team until he has reached 250 caps. How much closer he gets to that absurd total between now and the end of Euro 2024, only time will tell.

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